Museum Purpose

What should the purpose of a museum be?

According to Stephen E. Weil, emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, instead of being about something, museums should be for somebody. In his article about the transformation of American museums, Weil pinpoints two major currents for change that aided in this shift to a visitor centered approach…

The first major current for change according to Weil:

The museum is an instrument for social change!

By viewing the museum as an instrument for social change, as opposed to a repository for collections that never see the light of day, museums are given a new sense of purpose. This new sense of purpose is centered around the idea that education is the primary purpose of a museum. Although the early 20th century concept of a warehouse full of old, dusty, remarkable objects may seem nice in a traditional and safe way, this warehouse doesn’t do much to inspire the wider public. If given the task to make their organizations for somebody, museum professionals can set achievable goals to make their collections and programs work towards the purpose of education.

Speaking of those who work in museums, here are a few necessary skills (as described by Stephen Weil) of the modern super-heros of the museum profession:

  1. The ability to work directly with members of the community to get a better idea of how to meet their needs.
  2. Some practical knowledge about collaborating productively with other community organizations.
  3. An understanding of how to use collections, exhibits, and programs effectively.
  4. A knowledge and understanding of their audience.

The second major current for change according to Weil:

The non-profit conundrum!

Success in non-profit or not-for-profit museums has traditionally been measured in terms of survival. If the institution wasn’t sinking financially, flotation seemed to be ok. Heck… it even seems to be pretty gosh darn good, considering the amount of time, effort, and money put into museums that is often never recovered. But what if museums were required to demonstrate consistent profitability in the way that businesses are measured? By being required to use their resources with the same efficiency and effectiveness that is seen in the for-profit world, profits accumulated could be put towards bettering the museum and fulfilling the purpose.

Now for a question for readers….

With public education in mind, how can museum organizations assess their effectiveness, and subsequently establish achievable goals for improvement?

Inspiration for this post came from:

Stephen E. Weil’s From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum, Daedalus, America’s Museum, Vol. 128. No 3.

Stephen E. Weil’s Rethinking the Museum, Smithsonian Institution Press. pgs 43-56

John Cotton Dana’s The Gloom of the Museum

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8 Responses to Museum Purpose

  1. Bernie Gallagher says:

    Stephen Weil was emeritus senior scholar at the Smithsonian Institution.

    Bernie Gallagher, ’03

  2. kclew says:

    It’s time to get out into the community and ask what a museum’s effectiveness is and how it can become effective. There’s always the standard survey, but I personally am a strong advocate for knowing the community your museum is in and asking them what they want. In my opinion, a museum professional should be out among the community and as well-known as any local figurehead. After all, we are the ones protecting their heritage, but how will they know that if they don’t know us and their museum?

  3. jackta13 says:

    Hey Kelly,
    Great first blog for the class!!
    I think that what Weil is saying in both of his articles is really true about how museums are evolving into non-profit institutions with for-profit business practices. Which I think is a good way for museums to become more competitive in an increasingly diverse entertainment market and to relieve museums of the “charity” mindset. I tend to agree more with the second article’s statement about museums continuing to maintain collections as integral to its institution as opposed to just “materials of the moment” expressed in his first article. Although, he does qualify it with the fact that the museum objects would reflect the community’s involvement, I don’t think only community members come to museums, so non-community visitor sensibility may be a factor in determining whether certain objects and programs should be kept or culled by a museum To me, viewing historic artifacts is still a major draw to museums, in addition to the “special” exhibits that are showcased.
    As to your question about education, I am not sure (at this early stage in the semester) how we can assess the impact of the educational effectiveness of an exhibit or program other than to maybe partner with a class, school or youth center and track the performance of the students who are involved in the museum. Of course it would require a closer relationship with the museum and school and probably more time and resources to acquire effective results. Or perhaps just survey museum visitors to assess the programs offered by the museum. I’m not the best survey person, so I’m not sure it would be very effective in this situation. This is one of those social-hard-to-quantify questions that are discussed in Weil’s article as well. Good post.

  4. eannlaird says:

    I think the biggest connection to make between museums, their audience, and their collections is that museums exist to serve their audience through their collection. The audience should be central and the focus, but the collection, as a resource to reach and educate the audience, must be properly cared for.

    But not worshipped, and not stowed away to be forgotten about.

  5. ocothren says:

    A little late in getting around to this, but good job Kelly.

    I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of our interpreters, docents, educators and others on the front lines as resources in assessing our effectiveness. People are easy to read. Anyone who’s worked in interp can quickly identify what visitors respond to positively and what leaves them looking for the exit signs. I can’t speak to it personally, but I think the same probably goes for educators too. There should be more constant communication between our public faces and those working behind the scenes. Don’t forget to use what you already have available to you–the observations of your own staff. Of course, we can’t rely solely on staff observations and they should be used in conjunction with a more structured form of self-assessment. But I still don’t think we should dismiss the more informal and immediate type of evaluation conducted all the time by the people who interact with visitors on a daily basis.


  6. Alice says:

    It is Smithsonian Institution not Smithsonian Institute!!!

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